Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC) Review

The Short

Pros

– Genuine Lovecraftian horror

– No combat; you run or you die

– “Insanity” mechanic is fantastic and only adds to the horror

– Slow burn of creepiness that reminds me of the classic Silent Hill games

– Excellent sound design and graphics

– Might be the scariest games I’ve ever played

Cons

– Can be difficult to know exactly where to go next

– Might be a little slow at first for the impatient

– Messing up just once and result in a quick death

– Playing it in the dark with headphones can seriously freak you out

This may not look creepy, but you have no idea how tense this experience is.

The Long

What makes a game (or a movie, or a book) truly scary? Some people would say it’s an overabundance of gore to disgust you and freak you out. Others would argue its the fear of isolation, of not being able to see what is out there coming to get you while you are totally alone. And some think it’s zombies on motorbikes.

For me, the best horror is a slow burn, a general uneasiness caused by fear of the dark or the unknown. The fear of not being able to trust your senses, of seeing things that you don’t know if they are real or not. And when you start doubting yourself, that’s when you really start freaking out.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent does this perfectly. It might be the creepiest game I’ve ever played.

If these screenshots don’t look creepy, its because I’m avoiding any potential scare-spoilers.

The concept behind Amnesia is simple: you awake in a dark castle with – you guessed it! – amnesia. You seem to have left notes to yourself along the way, so armed with a lantern and tinderbox you set out to find exactly what is going on and try and get out of the castle alive.It starts with a very slow burn, walking through empty corridors, the only sounds your echoing footsteps and the winds breezing in through unseen windows. But the atmosphere goes a long way, so when stuff really starts getting messed up, you are already extremely on edge. It’s a great horror trick, one Silent Hill 2 did very well with its introduction, and it is masterfully executed in the opening moments of Amnesia.

The game is essentially an adventure game mixed with survival horror, with some twists. The biggest of which is the insanity concept. When you are in the dark, your character slowly begins to stress out more and more, leading him to become more “insane.” Eventually your vision starts to blur, your head aches, and you start seeing things that aren’t actually there at inopportune moments. Or are they? Since the monsters (which this game has, though you only see them in small snippets if you want to live) can be straight up invisible at times, it can be hard to trust your eyes once your insanity meter is high enough. This leads to another terrifying aspect: do you run from that monster thinking he is real, or is he just a figment of your deranged mind?

The places you go are very creepy without the need of any blood or gore.

Since light plays such an important factor, you’ll be doing a lot of digging around for lantern oil, lighting torches on the walls or candles, and only braving dark areas when you feel completely confident. Your character moves slowly, but not slow enough to be completely frustrating, and he can run when stuff gets crazy. And it will. Trust me, it will.

The art design in this game also adds to the scares. Rather than painting the walls in blood and guts with hope that you’ll freak out, it instead uses gothic architecture and your own imagination (and some stellar sound design) to cause you to imagine your own monsters. It’s a primal creepy, the fear of the dark or the weird and old, and it gets its hooks into you very quickly. When you do get to the few sections that are bloody or gory, since the rest of the game has been extremely tame the shock value is amplified to almost near-unbearable. While games like Dead Space 2 reveled in gore constantly, Amnesia knows how to use it to properly provide scares: after a long burn. It’s excellently executed.

This game reminds me of Myst for some reason, if Myst were full of Lovecraftian horrors.

Controls are simple. You make mouse gestures on objects to interact with them as you would in real life (click and move the mouse forward or back to open doors, dressers, etc.). This really seems like a game that would work real well with a Wiimote, but I digress. This “hands on” approach to stuff like opening doors (rather than just clicking and opening them) makes the world feel more real, and also makes it all the scarier when you are running for safety and have to swing the door open rather than just click and bust in. You could argue it’s a mechanic implemented to make you die more often, but I think it works since it was introduced from the start and it gives you time to get used to it before you constantly screw it up in a panic.

There are a few problems. The slow opening, as mentioned, might turn some players off who expected instant scares, but I found the chilling and surprisingly great looking environments enough to push me forward until stuff really got nuts. It can also be hard to know what to do or where to go next; there isn’t really a hint system and some levers or buttons are a little too well hidden. Puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, but when you get caught on one it really breaks the horror immersion element. Your character also walks really slow by default, as I said above, which means if you ever have to backtrack it can be a major pain in the butt.

I know I’m probably failing at conveying this, but I’m serious: This game is really, really scary. 

Graphics look excellent. They aren’t the highest polygon count and don’t have the best texture bump-mapping or whatever, but it all fits a theme and looks good throughout. Lighting is decent but could have been better (long shadows from your lantern probably would have helped make this game a lot creepier rather than just a blanket glow), but the architecture and locations are so perfectly crafted the little things are forgivable. Perhaps better complimented should be the sound design: this game has no music and is almost always in complete silence, save your footsteps, a breeze from a broken in wall, and the patter of little feet you pray belong to a rat. The silence goes a long way, with the game unafraid to just leave you in the quiet as your lantern oil burns down, which shows the developer had a lot of confidence in their scares. As they should; this game is horrifying.

Amnesia gets in your head.

As a fan of horror who thinks gore is a cheap way to convey “scares,” Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a godsend. Creepy, slow, quiet, and with a good mix of jump scares and genuine thrills, Amnesia is what the modern Silent Hill games wish they were, and is certainly on par with the originals from that excellent series. But even then, Amnesia does enough original to carve it’s own unique niche from the horror genre, and one I would love to see expanded upon. As it stands, if you are a fan of actual, genuine horror and don’t mind games that take their time getting there, Amnesia is certainly worth the $20 asking price (but it goes on sale constantly; I grabbed it for $5 off Steam).

This is real horror. Five out of five stars. 

A little creepy goes a long way.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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